Etiquette rules are not uniform in North America, varying among the very diverse societies which exist in both the United States and Canada. Etiquette rules are not simply a description of “cultural norms” and should not be considered a summary of North American sociological behavior, since the rules do not always match the common behavior followed by people. Unlike in cultures with formal class structures, such as nobility and royalty, western etiquette rules exist to assist behavior between and amongst people, so that rather than guess how one should act, one may know the proper behavior; they are never meant to point out the superiority of one person over another.
Traditional codified western etiquette codes developed during the Victorian era, when etiquette standards were based on social expectations. As North American society has shifted its moral focus away from social uniformity and towards fairness since the 1950s, etiquette standards have also evolved to treat sexes, classes, and races equally.
While Canada and the United States are similar in some respects, each is a separate country with its own distinct national identity. Insinuating otherwise is disrespectful to both.
Canada and the United States share cultural and linguistic heritage originating in Europe, and as such some points of etiquette in Europe apply to both, especially in more formal settings and wherever European culture is strongest.
North American Etiquette Basics
- Etiquette is meant to establish appropriate behavior. Though etiquette rules may seem arbitrary at times, these are the situations in which a common set of accepted customs help to eliminate awkwardness. Etiquette is not always meant to make others feel at ease or comfortable. Sometimes the appropriate actions are correct even if they are uncomfortable. Etiquette is in effect during negative situations as well as during positive ones.
- Like in most countries, some etiquette points are more relevant than others. While King Edward was highly insulted by minor faux pas such as, for example, using the oyster fork to eat salad, in the U.S. and Canada, table manners pale in comparison to insulting someone's ethnic identity.
- The etiquette rules mentioned in this article are often less observed or unfamiliar to some natives than they had been in the past. This does not make these rules incorrect or irrelevant.
- Points of traditional etiquette that are ignored by many people can be useful to know, particularly when the person one hopes to impress (or at least not offend) is one who does not ignore that particular point of etiquette.
- Perhaps the highest tenet of western etiquette is that it is inappropriate to tell others they are not following proper etiquette, unless 1) they are specifically asking you to tell them whether they are being rude, or 2) the person is under your instruction, such as is the case with a parent, babysitter, teacher, or supervisor.
- One should never attempt to preemptively excuse themselves from rudeness. "I don't mean to be rude, but..." is never an appropriate beginning to a conversation. "Pardon me for whispering" does not make the whispering acceptable.
- One may use one's unique cultural differences as a reason to be more gracious, not less. For example, saying "Well, most people in my culture don't send thank you notes" is an excuse for convenience, not based on etiquette of either culture--no culture condones being ungrateful.
- When in an extreme situation where someone's rudeness is causing an intolerable issue, one should bring it to the attention of the person in charge, such as a facility's management, or police. If a situation occurs in your own home, it is appropriate for the host to speak to the person in question (privately if possible), and if necessary one has the option of asking the offending individual to leave, but not to "tell him off."
- Judgements of individuals is of course a personal matter, and it is not incorrect to hold certain beliefs about people. However, these opinions should remain private and should not be shared with others in polite company.
General North American Etiquette: Cultural Standards
These etiquette topics are relevant in both the United States and Canada and pertain to basic interactions in the culture.
Age and Appearance
- It is impolite to ask an adult their age, weight, or other personal physical matters. Asking someone's age is only acceptable when they are young children. These are highly personal matters which should not be brought up except with people you are highly familiar with.
- It is appropriate to tell someone that you believe they look well, physically, such as commenting positively on their clothing or a hair cut. However, one should take care to not seem flirtatious, perhaps by giving the compliment in front of a third party.
Cultural Distinctions and Identity
- One should not make assumptions about distinct ethnic, national, religious, linguistic or cultural identities. For example, a Cuban American may be offended if assumed to be a Mexican American and vice versa.
- Individual identity is very important in the west. Each person identifies his or her own racial identity, cultural identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc, and one should never expect another to "justify" or "prove" any of his or her identities in a social setting. Comments such as: "How can you believe you are black when only one of your grandparents is?", "Your parents are Jewish, why aren't you?", "Your family is Puerto Rican, so you should call yourself a Latino," and "How do you know you are gay if you have never been with someone of the opposite sex?" are all extremely crass. Such issues are not the business of anyone but the individual in question. Every person in the west is permitted by etiquette to classify themselves in whatever way they choose and should not be asked to justify these decisions in a social setting. In non-social settings (professional, for example), these issues are considered irrelevant and there is no need for either party to discuss them unless they are germane to the conversation.
- Not looking someone directly in the eye when speaking can be seen as evasive, especially when emphasizing a specific point that might otherwise be in doubt. Prolonged eye contact, however, might be construed as either flirtatious or aggressive (or in some circumstances, a sign that the person in question is lying). It is permissible to break eye contact mid-conversation during an activity or action. In some American Indian cultures, it is considered disrespectful for a young person to maintain eye contact with an elder.
- A level head is also important to eye contact. Faces should be parallel to each other as much as possible with height being the least of concern.
- A head tilted slightly upwards may hint at a condescending tone and it will appear as if you are looking down upon the person.
- A head tilted downward during eye contact may indicate a look of anger or contempt as it furrows the brow.
Handshakes and Greetings
- Hand shaking can signal a greeting, farewell, agreement, acknowledgment, respect, encouragement or closure of an arrangement. Proper handshakes are done with the right hand and should neither be aggressive nor aloof. Omitting or avoiding a handshake may indicate of a lack of interpersonal skills.
- Avoiding or breaking eye contact in the duration of a handshake can be considered suspicious or even rude behavior.
- If a person is ill or his hand is soiled or sweaty, that person should disclose this to the other party and dispense with the handshake.
- In western etiquette, men and women alike shake hands with each other. The gender specific rules are over two centuries outdated.
- Among the Québécois and other French-speaking Canadians, shaking hands in a casual context is considered slightly unfriendly, especially between genders. Embracing loosely while lightly kissing each other's cheeks is often more appropriate for friends and family. This holds true between women and between men and women. It is not the ordinary custom for greetings between men.
- Some people, especially younger people, prefer slapping, gripping, or otherwise knocking hands casually with a closed fist (giving "props" or "daps"). This may be viewed as immature, however.
- Since handshaking is a potential vector for disease, the custom has been waning in certain groups: the medical profession, some sales professions, among members of fitness/health clubs, etc.
- If gloves are being worn indoors, they should be removed before shaking hands. This is especially applicable to men.
- Etiquette considers it impolite for men to wear hats or other head coverings indoors. A hat may be worn in the corridors and elevator of a public building, but the hat should be removed upon entering a room.
- Men should always remove hats in places of worship, when sitting at a table for a formal meal, while mourning and when a national anthem is playing. This does not apply to head coverings used due to religious beliefs, such as Sikhs and many orthodox Jewish men.
- A man is exempt from having to remove his hat if suffering from an illness which would cause embarrassment (e.g. a person suffering from hair loss due to cancer therapy).
- Traditionally (until the mid 1960s), Christian women outside of their homes usually wore hats, even while visiting others, and especially in houses of worship. However, this is mostly archaic except for a few much older women who prefer to still observe this tradition. When following these traditional etiquette rules, women should never wear a hat in their own homes while hosting.
- Many people will throw away any food they suspect has not met high standards surround the handling, storage and transportation of food and the prevention of foodborne illness. Prepared foods are allowed to be kept at room temperature only briefly, cooked and uncooked foods are kept separate, and hand washing should be frequent.
- Blowing one's nose into anything but a tissue or handkerchief, nose and ear picking, and burping, coughing, or sneezing without covering one's mouth are all considered disgusting and very rude to do in front of others. If necessary, one should excuse oneself to do so in private.
- Spitting on the ground is viewed as offensive, or at least immature. Spitting at the ground in front of someone is a serious insult.
- Chewing with one's mouth open, slurping or making excessive noise while eating, yawning without covering one's mouth and saying "excuse me" or burping without attempting to muffle the sound are all impolite.
- When someone else sneezes, it is customary to say "Bless you" (or "Gesundheit"). The person who sneezes may say "excuse me", especially if the sneeze was especially loud or they were unprepared and need to reach for tissue. If the sneeze was messy or food is being handled, it is typical to excuse oneself and wash one's hands immediately.
- Exposing strong personal odors to others is considered impolite. Many Americans and Canadians shower daily and use a variety of products such as antiperspirant, deodorant soaps, mouthwash, and foot powders. Perfume, aftershave and other scents should be used in moderation.
Male to Male Interactions
- Many men avoid body contact with other males beyond a handshake, a slap on the back or (in the case of younger men) rough-housing. Men exchanging embraces, or kissing on the cheek as a greeting, while common elsewhere in the world, is unusual. Holding hands while walking, as done in some cultures, would have only a romantic connotation in the west.
- Men often avoid conversation and eye contact in a public restroom, and might only nod or very shortly greet a coworker with whom they would typically start a conversation ("Hey").
- Men should avoid adjacent or closely-situated urinals and toilets when others are available. One should look only straight ahead or down when there is someone at an adjacent urinal.
- Although "you shouldn't point" is still a phrase in some people's consciousness, pointing is not always taboo when combined with kind words ("Excuse me, are you next in line?") by people who are obviously pointing at someone for an appropriate reason. Pointing is also a commonly accepted form of non-verbal greeting among friends, usually accompanied with a smile. Pointing is generally considered acceptable if a person is clearly pointing to an object.
- Use of the middle finger in pointing is sometimes considered offensive, but is more often considered awkward, because the receiver doesn't know if it's meant to be offensive.
- Although common, discussion of personal wealth, possessions and finances socially is impolite. Asking people about their salary is considered very crass.
- In financial transactions, it is usual to place money neatly in the hand of the receiver, unless a counter for this purpose is present. When giving someone a gratuity, it is best to give the money in the most discreet manner the situation allows.
- Also see the "Gifts" topic.
- It is considered invasive and rude to touch the abdomen of a pregnant woman unless one is first invited to do so.
- One should also avoid asking a woman if she is pregnant, especially in a non-social setting. This condition is a highly personal one and is not the business of others. Any woman should be allowed to keep her personal matters to herself, no matter how obvious the matter may be to others.
Privacy and Personal Space
- It is impolite, especially when first meeting someone, to ask if they are married or dating. Allow people to reveal such information on their own should they so choose.
- It is highly inappropriate to ever ask anyone in a social or professional setting their political or religious affiliations or beliefs.
- People typically like to have about an arm's length of personal space and may be very uncomfortable otherwise. In crowded situations less space is tolerated.
- Vulgar language or gestures should not be used in polite company.
- In Quebec one must be particularly cautious when speaking about the church, as many curse words are church related.
- Unless in a restaurant or bar that sells them, it is polite to ask the staff if cigars may be smoked, even in the smoking section, as even many smokers find their odor particularly offensive. (Many new laws in the U.S. now prohibit smoking in public places such as, but are not limited to, restaurants, bowling alleys, and bars. The laws pertaining to this matter vary geographically.)
- When socializing with others in a home or establishment, or even outside, it is polite to ask if anyone minds before lighting a cigarette.
- One should never start smoking in another's home or car without asking first, including outside the home.
- Littering with ashes, butts, matches, empty lighters and packages on sidewalks, streets, landscaping, parking lots, beaches, etc. is extremely rude and frequently illegal.
Titles, Honorifics, and forms of Address
- Titles are used with last names to address people in most occasions, except relatives and children. Traditionally, using first names is considered quite familiar and inappropriate, both socially and in the work place. Although it is now common in North America to use first names immediately upon meeting someone ("Hi John, I'm Clara."), it is not correct etiquette. One should address a person as Ms. or Mr. [Lastname] until asked to be addressed using the first name ("Please call me Shirley.")
- As the United States is in theory an egalitarian society, there are no social titles considered higher than "Mr.", "Ms.", "Mrs." and "Miss".
- When a person's surname is unknown, the honorifics "sir", "miss" (for very young women) or "ma'am" (regardless of marital status) should be used. "Mister" on its own (as in, "excuse me mister") sounds rude or foreign ["Señor" is used as both a title and honorific in Spanish, and the literal translation is often incorrectly assumed to be appropriate in English as well by native Spanish speakers]. "Young lady" or "Young man" should never be used to address anyone except pre-adolescents, as they are considered condescending and/or patronizing terms.
- In the 1960s, the title "Ms." was resurrected as an option to refer to any woman regardless of marital status. (This title, along with "Miss" and "Mrs." originally were all casual abbreviations of the formal and now archaic "Mistress," which now has a negative connotation.) It is best to use "Ms." until another preference is made known. The title "Mrs." can only be used with the woman's husband's name (both first and last names). John Doe's wife, "Mrs. Doe," may be correctly referred to as "Mrs. John Doe" or "Ms. Jane Doe," but there is no such person as "Mrs. Jane Doe." While correct, in practice this is often not followed. However, it is polite to honor any person's personal preference once she makes it known, even if it is not in keeping with tradition.
- Professional, religious, military and political titles, such as "Judge" "Colonel" "Mayor" "Reverend" "Senator" "Doctor" "Professor" "Chef" etc., are often used in social situations, though from an etiquette standpoint those titles should not be used in strictly social circumstances where those titles are not applicable. For example, a Reverend attending a social event as a representative of his or her parish would appropriately be addressed as such, but when attending an event of his or her own family or personal friends, it may seem pretentious to insist the title be used.
- The term "Doctor" by itself is appropriate only when referring to those with M.D. degrees, and then only in a health care setting. "Dr." as a title can be used with anyone who has an earned academic doctorate, while he or she is involved in their profession. One must never suggest that a person with a non-medical doctorate is not a "real" doctor. While the title has commonly been used since the early 20th century for medical doctors socially as well as professionally, the practice is inherently non-egalitarian, and those with other doctorates have not unexpectedly latched onto this practice as well in social settings. The original justification for this practice became very common during World War II, when it seemed it might be convenient to know in case of a medical emergency. Presently however, not all who are best suited to handle medical emergencies (such as EMTs and nurses) are M.D.'s, and not all M.D.'s are suited to handle medical emergencies. [Rather than having a retired chiropidist or psychiatrist brought forth in a true medical emergency, it is best simply to state what is happening and ask anyone capable of helping to come forward.] Ideally, no title other than Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. should be used in strictly social settings, and no one in a social setting should take offense when being referred to with those titles.
- Political titles are often used inappropriately. For example, according to traditional etiquette, it is inappropriate to refer to a former U.S. President as "President..." though it is appropriate to refer to former state governors with the title "Governor..." It is difficult to know exactly how to address people with such titles. (Some believe that politicians are 'never' in strictly social settings unless with their own family or personal friends.) There are complicated rules regarding proper usage in the etiquette-related field known as protocol.
- It is common in some American cultures, especially urban and Southern, for children and others to address people with the title "Miss" or "Mr." and then their first name ("Miss Julia", "Mr. Freddy") as a semi-formal form of address.
General North American Etiquette: Private Life
These etiquette topics are relevant in both the United States and Canada and pertain to social interactions, such as with friends and relatives.
- Certain flowers (particularly chrysanthemums or white lilies) are given only at funerals and most florists will advise against them for other occasions. As red roses typically connote romantic feeling, they are inappropriate for other circumstances (in this case yellow roses may be used instead if the recipient is simply a friend). Chrysanthemums may be given on Mother's Day without funerary implications due to the homonym 'mum'.
- Flowers should not be sent to Jewish families in mourning; fruit is appropriate.
- Guests should consider sending flowers earlier in the day or the day before a dinner party rather than bring them just as the hostess is busy with last minute dinner preparations. A host might keep a vase with water aside if suspecting flowers will be brought by guests.
Gifts (Entitlement to)
Perhaps the single largest cause of etiquette errors in the west is due to the continued rising expectations of gifts. This mentality of entitlement to gifts is completely contrary to basic western etiquette and has led to many etiquette myths and rude behavior. While gifts are common in some situations, they are never to be expected
by anyone for any reason. All gifts must be looked upon as unexpected, accepted graciously and enthusiastically, and thanks should be sent promptly.
- Faux Pas: The feeling of entitlement has led to many common though incorrect practices, such as:
- Asking for the receipt when receiving a gift,
- Giving gift registry information to those who have not asked for it,
- Inviting people to wedding showers who will not be invited to the wedding,
- Requesting that gifts be "cash only", or preemptively stating "No gifts, please."
- Looking upon gifts or offers of gifts as "transferable" or "liquidatable."
Accepting, Rejecting, and Using Gifts:
- The correct response to a gift is "Thank you," or "How thoughtful." As gifts are not expected, negative judgments of any sort are inappropriate. The following are incorrect responses:
- "I already have one."; "Do you have the receipt?"; "I'd like to return/exchange it for something else."; "It's not really my taste."; "Does it come in a different color?"; "I know someone who could use this."; "I like it because it's from you."
- It may be appropriate to suggest you would like to exchange a clothing item for a different size, but more gracious to do so without involving the giver.
- One exception to accepting gifts graciously is when a gift has an expectation associated with it, i.e., strings attached. The classic example is a young woman refusing to accept expensive jewelry from a much older married man. One has no obligation to accept the "gift" of a puppy if one does not want it, as such a gift is a huge commitment and financial burden and can rightly be rejected (politely). Gifts which are meant to be insulting or are highly inappropriate may as well be returned to the giver. For examplle, giving a leather jacket to someone you know is a stringent vegan or animal rights activist.
- As a gift has no strings attached, the recipient has a right to do what he wants with it, including disposing of it, selling it, or "regifting." These should be done without the original giver's awareness. Similarly, a giver should never inquire about a gift later on, as this may embarrass the recipient.
Expecting and Selecting Gifts
- Only young children (2-10) may expect gifts at their own birthday parties, which is why these are also the only birthdays where "party favors" for guests are to be expected. All recipients must be gracious and thankful. People older than 10 should not have an expectation of gifts at birthday parties. Showers are the only other occasion where gifts are expected, which is why they should not be hosted by relatives of the recipient.
- When attending a personal or religious event, such as a birthday, wedding, shower, bar mitzvah, etc., one is supposedly sharing the celebration of a rather personal occasion. For this reason, etiquette considers the common gifts of cash, checks, and gift cards improper. One should know the honoree well enough to purchase something you believe he or she will find enjoyable. Donations "in your name" are not acceptable as the gift is not to the person (this does not apply to funerals.) If one does not really know the individual personally, your attendance at the personal event should be reexamined. Cash gifts are acceptable for a person one supposedly does not know personally, but to whom one still wishes to give a gift, such as an employee, newspaper carrier, doorman, or delivery person.
Thanks for Gifts (See also "Thank You Notes" section)
- Perhaps the most common source of etiquette errors involving gifts is failure to send thanks. The recipient should thank the giver in writing. Except for trivial gifts, such as a candy bar, a verbal, phoned, or e-mailed thank you is inadequate. The gift in question should be named in the letter.
- There are no excuses for failure to respond promptly. Two weeks is the standard maximum, wedding gifts not excepted, though there are common misconceptions that waiting for matching cards, photographs, or for the ceremony to pass are reasons to delay thanking people. See "Weddings" section.
- Hospitality requires that a host(ess) extending an invitation provide for all the guest's needs, and cannot attach "strings" to the invitation. A host cannot expect the guest to bring something, or even worse, to pay for part of the event or function, such as portion a birthday honoree's meal. If this is your intention as the person making the arrrangements, say so up front without pretending you are actually "hosting." A guest is expected only to provide his own transportation, lodging, and to dress appropriately.
- Guests cannot be expected to dress appropriately unless the host has told them what type of dress is expected. (See section on Weddings for details on standard North American attire).
- Etiquette does not allow any suggestion that gifts are, or even could have been, expected at a hosted event. Thus the prohibition of gift registry information, suggestions, or "No gifts, please" statements on or acccompanying invitations. If a guest inquires himself, such things may only then be brought up by the host.
- An invitation is meant only for the people to whom it is addressed. "Mr. and Mrs. Jones" does not mean "Mr. and Mrs. Jones and any of their relatives they may wish to bring." If wishing to invite additional family members, the host should not add "... and Family." Instead, be specific rather than have the invitees guess what exactly this means.
- Invitations for mixed social events, such as parties, weddings, etc., must be extended to the established significant others of any invitees, such as spouses, fiances, or long time or live-in boy/girlfriends. If not living together, the host may inquire as to the partner's full name and address and send a separate invitation for formal occasions. If a person's socially established partner has not been invited, etiquette allows him or her to politely request that the host do so.
- Persons without socially established partners may not request to bring aguest, nor is a host expected to invite singles to bring a date (i.e., "[Invitee] and Guest").
- Individuals may decline or accept invitations extended to multiple persons. For example, a woman may accept an invitation extended to her entire family, even if the husband and children must send regrets (all in the same letter to the host).
- When receiving an invitation, you are obliged to respond in kind as soon as possible. This means if you receive the invitation by phone, reply by phone, etc. One must accept or decline even if "RSVP" is not specified.
- Accepting an invitation is making a commitment. If you cannot be sure you can keep the obligation, simply decline the invitation. "Maybe" is not an acceptable response, as it insinuates you would like to accept, but want to keep your options open in case "something better" comes along.
- One can never cancel once one has offered or accepted hospitality. Traditionally, the only reasons considered acceptable were 1) illness, 2) death in the immediate family, and 3) an intervening social invitation from the President (in the U.S.). As etiquette no longer applies only to those in high society, an extremely important work obligation which intervenes is also an acceptable reason. In any case of cancellation, notification to the host or guest must be immediate, with profuse apologies.
See also American Table Manners
- It is polite to avoid eating before others are ready to begin, and is impolite to eat in front of others outside of a mealtime. Typically all wait for the host to begin. In a situation such as a large banquet table or a restaurant where the servers have failed to bring all food to the table at the same time, it is gracious to insist that others begin eating while their meals are still warm. This is not a proper situation to begin with as all people at a table should be served at the same time, whether in a home or commercial establishment.
- People should excuse themselves from the table when leaving temporarily. The details are not necessary, as one is often going to the restroom, which is not appropriate meal time conversation. "Excuse me, I'll be right back" is fine.
- A guest may always simply say, "No, thank you," when offered food he does not wish to eat. Hosts must never press guests to consume food they have turned down.
- Hosts are not expected to cook special meals for guests with dietary restrictions, whether medical, religious or ethical, but should do so for family members. A guest may discreetly inform a host he is rather familiar with or related to that he cannot consume certain dishes, preferably when accepting the invitation.
- It is extremely rude to make comments about food choices while eating (e.g. asking someone who has ordered all vegetarian dishes, "What's wrong with you, don't you eat meat?", a vegetarian asking others, "Don't you think it's cruel to eat animals?", saying to a person keeping kosher, "You just don't know what you're missing with this ham," or asking a diabetic "How can you stand not eating sugar?")
- Children should not address their parents or grandparents by first name, even in adulthood. However, addressing grandparents by their first name after grandpa or grandma (example: Grandma Jane or Grandpa John) is acceptable in some families.
- People in Canada and the United States with ties to French-speaking, Spanish-speaking and other linguistic communities often use non-English words for family members, especially grandparents.
- Stepchildren may address non-adoptive stepparents with parental terms, with their first name, or, in non-cohabitation situations by title and surname ("Mr. Jones").
- It is permissible for a child to refer to his or her parent by the parent's first name if there are many people with parent/children relationships in close proximity. This is done to avoid many heads simultaneously turning at the mention of "mom" or "dad".
- While removing shoes upon entering a home is common in the US and Canada, it is not universal and should not be assumed, except when footwear is muddy, snowy, wet or otherwise dirty. The practice varies siginficantly by region, climate, culture, and individual. For example, in Hawaii, it is common to remove shoes before entering a home, and to leave them outside by the door, never inside. Etiquette has no set rule on this matter.
- Unless one arrives at the home at the same time as the host and sees them removing their shoes, or has been to the home before and knows that a household "no shoes" rule is in effect, it can seem overly familiar to remove one's shoes. One may ask, "Should I remove my shoes?" rather than "May I remove my shoes?"
Thank You Notes
- Thanks may be offered for any situation. A thank you note is not required for all situations, but is never incorrect if sincere.
- Thank you letters are required for all non-trivial gifts, should mention the gift, and must be sent promptly in all cases, usually within two weeks at a maximum (see "Gifts" section for further details regarding funerals and weddings). Though pre-printed thank you cards are commonly used, handwritten letters are more proper. In a business context, a typed letter is expected, to be signed by hand.
- In addition to the thank you note, a gift may be sent as part of the thanks. Since a gift is given, this would require another thank you note in turn from the original gift-giver. However, receiving a thank you note alone does not require another thank you note in reply (though sending one is not incorrect).
- If you receive a cash gift, it is polite when thanking the giver to indicate what you purchased with it. In situations where the recipient may have received a large number of cash gifts at once, commonly at many weddings, bar mitzvahs, or first communions, the recipient cannot be expected to go on a shopping spree in time to send thanks, and it is therefore acceptable to simply thank people for their "generous gift(s)." (Note that while common, cash gifts are usually not appropriate. See the "gifts" section.)
- People lightly touch glasses or simply hold them up when giving a toast, often saying, "congratulations," "cheers," "to us," "bon appetit," etc. before drinking. It is considered impolite not to drink after a toast has been made. One may drink water if not wishing to take part in a toast involving champagne or other alcohol.
- The "Best Man's speech" at weddings is a common, relatively unstructured and complimentary one, usually singing the praises of the groom and sometimes bride. A full roast, such as is common in the UK, is inappropriate.
- Americans and Canadians typically do a formal toast only once per gathering, if at all. Even lifting one's glass and saying "cheers" each time a new drink is poured, while not impolite, would be seen as tedious.
- Americans tend to be less rigid than some Western Europeans regarding direct eye contact during toasts. Americans may be more prone to look toward the center and direct eye contact to the crowd or glasses generally, whereas in some European countries it can be seen as a sign of dishonesty or ill-will not to make direct eye contact when making a toast.
Visiting Homes / Receiving Guests
- When a guest receives an invitation to someone's home, it is common but not necessary for the guest to ask, "Could I bring anything?" If the host declines, the guest should not insist, as this insinuates that the host is unable to provide adequate hospitality, especially for more formal situations such as dinner parties. Hosts accepting such offers should be clear, but not demanding; if one doesn't think the guest will be able to provide the correct item, politely decline the offer.
- It is polite to announce your presence when arriving at an informal occasion, such as a backyard barbecue, or if dropping by unexpectedly, although the latter is a faux pas unless the host has previously indicated that such visits are welcome.
- When visiting someone's home it is not necessary but permissible to bring a host(ess) gift, such as sweets, a toy for the children, a beverage to be shared, flowers, etc. The purpose of such gifts is recognition of the hospitality, not as a payment for it. However, if you have been received multiple times in another's home, you should reciprocate, by inviting the hosts to your home, a restaurant, or another appropriate place.
- A guest may offer to help a host, and it is more appropriate in more familiar situations. The host should turn down help offered by people he is less familiar with. Judith Martin states: "A good guest offers to help but does not insist if the offer is firmly refused. A good host never requests help and offers mild resistance if it is wanted, but firm resistance if it is not."
Bringing and Serving Food
- Bringing elaborate food items to a meal as a gift, such as roast beef or lasagna, obviously meant to be served immediately, is impolite as it implies that the host may not be providing enjoyable food. Such a dish may be welcome at times, but the guest should inquire in advance.
- As all gifts, including food, should never have expectations attached to them, a host should always feel he may to put them aside for another time rather than serve them right away. If one insists on bringing food as a host gift, items such as wine, coffee cake, pie, or nuts are appropriate as they can be put aside. The host may reply, "Thank you. I'll look forward to enjoying this."
- Non-related guests should not bring up dietary restrictions unless first asked by the host. If worried there will be little food which one could eat, one should eat something before the visit, or decline the invitation if necessary. Relatives may discuss special dietary needs with the host, preferably when accepting the invitation, not when sitting down to the meal.
- For meals, hosts should not delay the food for more than half an hour past the invited time. Offering appetizers is a must if the meal will be served later. Likewise, guests should not be "fashionably late" when invited for meals. Drinks (water at a minimum) should be offered within ten minutes of a guest's arrival regardless of the time of day or occasion. Hosts should not be expected to hold up meals for tardy guests, especially when other guests are waiting to eat.
- A guest should have the opportunity to say, "No, thank you," before food is put on his plate. If serving food personally rather than passing it around, the polite host first asks, "Would you like some [habanero and spider goulash, etc.]?" Not doing so might put a guest in the uncomfortable position of having food on his plate which he has no desire to eat, due to his tastes, appetite, or dietary restrictions.
Weddings are often an occasion for particular concern about etiquette, and for some the only time where etiquette becomes a concern. Weddings should not be used as an opportunity to use etiquette, especially incorrect myths, for inconveniencing others or for selfish reasons. An important guideline is that a wedding is not, as is often said, "my special day," "her day," or "their day," but an event to be enjoyed by all invited to be present. Graciousness on the part of all involved helps.
- The people with whom the hosts want to share the day should be the first priority, and the expected number should be considered before selecting the "type" of wedding one wishes to have. The hosts are first and foremost obliged to provide an adequate setting for the guests, not to choreograph a certain type of reception in fulfillment of any person's "dream." To do so is an affront to the guests who supposedly are sharing a very intimate day with the bride and groom.
- Bridal party members should be selected based on interpersonal closeness to the bride or to the groom. Suggesting that people should be picked in order to make the photographs look a certain way is particularly crass -- the practice has become so widespread that etiquette mavens have suggested hiring models if one believes the appearance of the photos is more important than the interpersonal relationships one has with those in the wedding party. The "chorus line" syndrome is not required: the bride's party and the groom's party need not be of matching gender, nor of equal numbers: each person in the wedding party should simply stand with whom he or she is closer. Terms such as "man of honor," "bridesmen," "groomswomen," and "best woman" are appropriate when applicable.
- Guests should not be expected to wait for an extended period of time between the ceremony and reception, and should be fed a meal if the reception and/or ceremony is during normal meal times.
- While hosts must supply beverages of some sort, they are under no obligation to provide alcohol. Those who do so are obliged to provide neither unlimited nor specific types of alcohol. Cash bars are as inappropriate as billing guests for their meal. While common in the reception room, a cash bar indicates that the host believes the guests should have access to drinks, but is not willing to pay for them. A host not willing to pay for any commodity should not have it sold within the event itself. If possible, a bar within the establishment but not actually inside the event hall can supply additional beverages to those who are not satisfied with those the host is providing.
- Though a trivial matter, the tissue paper which printers place into invitations is meant to prevent wet ink from smudging. As these have long since served their purpose by the time they are delivered to the hosts, they should be removed before being mailed to the guests.
- The women in the bridal party do not need to wear matching dresses or colors. With the exception of the bride, all people should be dressed to an equal formality, including the bride's and groom's parents. The bride may wear a long formal gown even for daytime and/or less formal weddings.
- Any bride may wear white, the bride's sexual history not being the business of anyone but herself and her spouse to be, though white may look unusual at a second or latter wedding. Wearing white is reserved for the bride (should she choose to do so). Women should avoid dressing in white or off-white unless combined with other colors. Guests wearing red or other ostentatious outfits may appear to be objecting to the marriage.
- Black has become common for wedding parties, but is not considered proper etiquette for women as this is associated with funerals in the west, though dark blues or browns are fine. Men should avoid starkly black business suits, or accent one with a bright tie or handkerchief. However, proper black evening suits ("tuxedos") are fine for evening weddings, as they are by definition attire for social occasions. People in first mourning (in mourning for a close relative who has not yet been buried) should not attend weddings nor social celebrations of any kind.
- Guests should be told what level of formality and time of day the events will be. This may be "informal" (business suits), "formal" (eveningwear), or "very formal" (white tie, or morning dress). See formal wear. A host may choose a different, i.e. "casual" dress code, but as this has no specific meaning in western etiquette, the host should be quite specific when informing the guests of what attire is expected. Guests should dress to the correct level of formality, neither being too casual nor too formal, and for the time of day.
Guests and Gifts
- Guests accepting an invitation are expected to provide their own transportation, lodging, and proper attire at their own expense. Guests are not expected to give a gift which is meant to "cover" the expense of their meal.
- Hosts should not include registration information in the invitations, nor requests for cash gifts, or mention of "no gifts", nor anything else which would hint that the bride and groom are entitled to a gift.
- While gifts are customary, they are not expected by etiquette, whether an invitation is accepted or not. However, all invited guests must send a letter of congratulations, often sent with the acceptance or regret. Though less personal, many people send congratulations within a commercial greeting card which accompanies their gift. Guests may send a gift up to one year after the wedding date, but recipients are expected to send thanks as soon as possible, within two weeks of receipt, the time of the honeymoon not counting toward this time period.
- A wedding is a very personal event, regardless of the number of guests present. Guests should know the bride or groom well enough to find a gift which they will appreciate. Cash, checks, and gift cards are therefore not considered proper, regardless of their common usage as wedding presents in the west. Guests may inquire as to the existence of a gift registry, but are not required to do so, nor to select an item from one.
- Though common in some circles, asking guests "where their envelope is," wishing wells, and money dances are vulgar in western etiquette, as they are blatant indications that cash gifts are expected from the guests. A wedding party member who is given an envelope by a guest should briefly thank the guest and discreetly put it away. Any guest being asked for such an item should politely state that he has already arranged for a gift.
- Party favors for guests are not required. Using the concept of party favors in order to brag about making a charitable donation "in lieu of party favors" is crass. This action insinuates that the guests were entitled to a gift, further suggests that the theoretical gifts were transferable, and is ultimately an excuse to brag about a personal charitable act. Hosting a wedding should not be used as an opportunity and excuse to boast about a charitable donation supposedly made out of kindness.
General North American Etiquette: Public Interactions
These etiquette topics are relevant in both the United States and Canada and pertain to dealings with people in public.
- Walking in situations such as a supermarket or shopping mall, Canadians generally follow the same general rules as drivers and will keep to their right, effectively creating two "lanes" of pedestrian traffic.
- Americans follow this pattern more loosely except when they have no choice (such on a congested city street) and are more apt to deviate from it. Still, even two people passing one another on otherwise empty sidewalk will usually each keep to the right.
- On crowded escalators (such as at subway stations) it is expected that one stands on the right side to allow people to walk on the left side. In leisure areas (such as shopping malls) this is not expected.
- It is generally considered polite to hold a door open (or give it an extra push open) rather than let it slam in the face of someone following you. If someone opens or holds a door open, it is polite to thank them.
- It is also polite to wait and step aside for people exiting an elevator before getting on an elevator. The same holds true for subways, trains, buses and even paths that can offer enough space for one person.
- If possible to do so safely, it is polite to thank a driver who stops or slows for you, using either a wave or a raised palm. Do not honk as a "thank you" as it may startle others and be dangerous.
- As servers should ask diners frequently if diners need anything, it is mildly rude in a formal restaurant to make gestures to request service. Polite North Americans often wait silently for service if the wait staff is breaching etiquette. It is less improper in non-western style and/or informal establishments to contact the waiter by making eye contact, nodding the head, or holding up the index finger. If necessary, "Excuse me..." or saying the waiter's name is appropriate if said politely. If waitstaff continues to ignore you, speak to management rather than walk to the inattentive waiter.
- Waitstaff should not offer to place a customer's napkin on his lap. This is not "formal" dining and was never correct etiquette. If a waiter attempts to do so, you may say, "Excuse me, but I can do that myself, thank you," taking the napkin from the waiter if necessary.
- Diners may thank and speak to servers, but need not if engaged in conversation.
- Silverware left in an "Open" position (fork and knife on either side of the plate) lets wait staff know you are not finished with the plate. Silverware in "closed" position, (together, typically on the right side of the plate), lets the wait staff know you are finished. Leaving the fork and knife on the plate in an X indicates you will return to finish your meal.
See also "Tipping" section.
- In crowded buses, trains, or waiting rooms, people in good health surrender their seats to the elderly or disabled, the very young (toddlers and infants), and to pregnant women. It is impolite to assume someone is in good health and to ask them to give up a seat, or to chastise them for not having offered. A young person who appears healthy may, for example, have a severe orthopedic problem and may need the seat more than a healthy 75-year-old.
- The practice of men surrendering their seats to women is no longer considered correct etiquette, as it is fundamentally sexist. Making this offer to a woman, other than older, frail, or pregnant women, may appear flirtatious.
- When enough seats are available (such as at a movie theater, uncrowded bus, park bench, or waiting room), strangers should sit at least one seat apart.
- In a formal social setting, gentlemen should stand when a female approaches a table to sit, or excuses herself from it. This is not necessary at a very large table in which not all people are involved in the same conversation, at informal meals, and should be avoided in professional settings as it appears sexist.
- Tipping is done only by the host of a party. Guests should never leave tips as this breaches the host's hospitality. This applies to bar service at weddings and any other party where you are a guest as well. The host should provide tips to those employees at the end of the event.
- In the past, it was considered inapproptiate for the owner of any establishment to accept tips, but this custom has mostly vanished.
- Tips should be left for food servers in an establishment where orders are taken and food is brought to the table. Walk-up counter service does not require tipping--tip cups left on counters are improper and may be ignored.
- 15-20% tip is standard for sit-down food service, with more or less given to reflect excellent or poor service.
- If you receive very poor food service, it is best to speak to the management so that the problem may be resolved. It is permissible in an extreme situation to not tip. Insulting the waiter by leaving a penny on the table as the "tip" is of course contrary to etiquette, and this rude and childish reaction does nothing to address the poor service.
- For buffet service, a small tip may be left for bringing drinks to the table. A dollar per drink or 10% may be adequate.
- Tips for bar service are generally $1 per drink.
For further details and other instances where tipping is standard in North America, see "Tipping" article.
- Waiting in line is appropriate in all situations and "cutting" the line or otherwise trying to bypass the waiting order is extremely rude regardless of age. However, it is polite to voluntarily let those that are older or disabled to cut ahead in line if all the people in front of him agree.
- If it is unclear whether a person is in line or not, it is appropriate to ask, with a simple "Excuse me, are you in line?"
- In a waiting area at a medical center, hair salon, or other situation, expressing impatience by loudly complaining to friends or asking the receptionist, "What's taking so long?", will rarely expedite the matter. It is acceptable to politely ask for an estimate of how long the wait will be.
- Getting the attention of workers such as store employees and serving staff with most gestures (such as waving someone towards you) or calling loudly for assistance is impolite. Snapping of the fingers and whistling for the employee are completely unacceptable. It is better to move toward an employee and say something along the lines of "excuse me..." Waving (as if saying hello) may also be appropriate when one has made eye contact with a worker and will usually prompt them to ask if assistance is needed.
- When dealing with workers such as waiters, store employees, receptionists, and government employees, civilities such as "please" and "thank you" are appropriate. An arrogant attitude, such as one used in dealing with servants generations ago, is not.
- Most people in Canada and the United States have these sorts of jobs during at least some stage of their lifetime. Even when the worker in question has less than perfect manners, dealing with such people graciously is more indicative of "high class" than the amount of money one spends.
- Civilities by clerks are sometimes used so effusively that they can lose their sincerity or desired effect. Such terms as "thank you very much" should be used only when sincerely meant, rather than out of habit. Frequent overuse has become so common in parts of the U.S. that it sometimes leads to misunderstandings. Less frequent usage of such civilities in the eastern U.S. may cause them to seem brusque to customers from the midwest, while profuse but less than ecstatic such civilities may seem insincere to those visiting the midwest from the east, or from Canada.
- While clerks and customers often address each other with terms such as "hon," "dear," "sweetie", "darling", "doll", "honey," etc. (in the South in particular), these are not proper forms of address and appear patronizing, condescending, and unprofessional to many. Proper terms are "Sir" or "Ma'am," or, if the name is known, Mr./Mrs./Ms. [Lastname].
Topics of Etiquette in Canada
The following issues are of special concern to the people of Canada:
- There are three distinct groups of Aboriginal peoples in Canada: First Nations people (often referred to by specific tribe names), Inuit and Métis. These are official classifications in Canada and care should be taken to distinguish between them. Native Americans, or the less popular word 'Indians', are used to describe aboriginals in the lower 48 United States. Aboriginal Hawaiians are simply called Hawaiian, aboriginal Alaskans are usually called Native Alaskans, or the name of their specific tribe; Aleut, Eskimo, Alutiiq, etc.
- Etiquette demands respect for the lifestyles of Aboriginal people. Although traditional spiritual, cultural, and lifestyle practices thrive in Canadian aboriginal communities, these have evolved and incorporate modern elements, from snowmobiles and state-of-the-art fishing boats to websites through which First Nations groups celebrate their heritage. What's more, 42% of aboriginal people in the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, have post-secondary education, and 78% live off-reserve; the most common occupation for Aboriginal people in Canada as a whole is in sales/service, followed closely by business/finance/administration and transportation/equipment operation. This presents a very different picture from the stereotypes seen around the world in movies and literature featuring Aboriginal peoples of North America.As a result, expecting an Aboriginal person to be "just like in the movies" may make one seem ignorant or rude to aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike.
- Respect for aboriginal culture is especially important in such situations as a First Nation's pow wow. For example, it is extremely rude to touch a dancer's regalia or to take a photograph of a dancer without asking for and clearly receiving permission. It is also taboo to bring alcohol or narcotics to a pow-wow.
- Interruptions are seen as quite rude among First Nations cultures in general. Particular respect should be paid to elders (people who are older or people well-respected in the community). When they speak on an issue, it is unacceptable to interrupt or speak until they say they have finished or until they invite others to speak or ask questions.
- Speakers of the Yupik languages self-identify as "Eskimo" but the majority of the Native population in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland prefer to be called "Inuit" (or "Inuvialuit"), and most find the term "Eskimo" highly offensive.
- The term "Eskimo" is sometimes used in other contexts, such as by sports teams like the Abitibi Eskimos or the Edmonton Eskimos. Be aware that they use these names to the chagrin of some Inuit and people who advocate political correctness. Treat this sensitive issue accordingly.
- Expecting an English-speaking Canadian to know French well, or vice versa, can create awkward situations. However, it is more common for Francophone Canadians to be fluently bilingual than Anglophone Canadians (in the western regions of Montreal, or outside of Québec).
- While both English and French are official languages, English is more widely used in areas outside of Quebec.
- When initiating a discussion, it is polite to at least attempt to use the native language of one's interlocutor. However, if one does not speak that language, it is good form to inform the other person of that fact and asking if they speak one's own. Learning a few phrases such as "Excuse me, but I do not speak English. Do you speak French?", or conversely, "Pardon. Je ne parle pas français. Parlez-vous anglais?" can go a long way in demonstrating sincerity.
- In areas which are primarily French-speaking, when being served (in restaurants, hotels, etc.) it is considered rude to automatically expect service in English, even in urban areas such as Montreal. Do not expect English to be known by people in suburbs and smaller towns (although in some cases, it will be). A polite demeanor, including excusing one's self when asking for assistance in English, is much-appreciated and will facilitate social interaction.
- Non-Canadians are not advised to initiate discussion on Anglophone-Francophone relations. Avoid faux pas by respecting it as one would a private matter. Offering even well-intentioned commentary about issues such as Quebec separatism risks offending Anglophone and Francophone Canadians alike.
Although many Canadians are fiercely proud of their country, they tend to shun nationalist rhetoric and patriotic fervor as not being appropriate for public display. For example, Canadians generally do not post Canadian flags on front porches, bumper stickers and so on nearly as much as those from the United States. Canadians do celebrate a patriotic holiday called Canada Day
It is considered a great dishonor to allow a Canadian flag to touch the ground. It is also considered disrespectful to mark or alter a Canadian flag. Wearing apparel featuring the flag is generally accepted. A Canadian flag that is unfit for display (such as a ripped flag) is not to be flown and is to be destroyed in a dignified manner.
Topics of Etiquette in the United States
These etiquette topics are of particular concern to those in the United States.
Language etiquette in the U.S.
- The United States has no declared official language. English is spoken by the vast majority of US citizens but is not universal. The United States is a nation with many immigrants and citizens who were once citizens of other lands with non-English languages, or who have ancestors who come from other nations where English was not the predominant tongue. In large neighborhoods of some cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, or Miami, and in certain commercial establishments, English is simply not spoken by the majority of people. Visitors should be prepared to converse in another language or to be patient with people who have varying abilities in English.
- It is never appropriate to criticize the accent or lack of proficiency of a non-native speaker of English. One should always be encouraging and respectful of others' attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own, without being patronizing.
- There are different regional and cultural dialects of English in the United States, such as Bostonian, Southern, New York, and urban. Some of these can be quite hard for others to understand, especially for non-native English speakers, or those from other English speaking nations. There is no one correct manner of speaking English (opposite to the way that there is an objectively accepted manner of writing Standard American English.)
- Correcting pronunciation or finishing another's sentence is inappropriate, unless requested. Asking for clarification or repetition of what was being said is acceptable; however, except in very important conversations, excessive or repeated requests for clarification should be avoided--seek alternative methods to communicate or resolve an interaction with someone.
The United States has gained a diverse population through waves of immigration from all over the world, from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Some of the population is descended partly from the native peoples of North America, and small populations of completely indigenous people still remain. As when encountering any person, it is impolite to assume anything about someone in the United States based on his race, including but not limited to: language skills, citizenship, nationality or national origin, family history, education, economic status, social abilities, behavior, beliefs, personal habits, etc.
- The subject of race relations, both past and present, in the United States is a sensitive one, especially in regards to African-American people.
- The terms "Black" and "African American" are used somewhat interchangeably, though the distinction is more nuanced, the latter perceived as more politically correct or formal. The terms "Negro" and "Colored" are archaic and impolite.
- Although the word "nigger" is heard in a variety of music and movies originating in the US, it is considered extremely vulgar and offensive in polite company. Even when discussing the controversy around use of the word, it is impolite to actually say it aloud. Substituting the phrase "The N-word" is considered less impolite.
- The term Native American is usually used to describe people descended exclusively or primarily from the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The term "American Indian" is often seen as politically incorrect, but is preferred by some tribal groups and individuals as it is the only description of an ethnic group which uses "American" as an adjective rather than a noun, and comes first in the description.
- "Indian American" should never be used to describe the indigenous people, as this term refers to people of Asian Indian descent. The term "Indian" by itself is arbitrary, and was often used throughout American history to refer to the native people disparagingly.
- The indigenous people of Alaska, often thought of as Eskimos, are more appropriately referred to as "Alaska Natives" unless a more specific term is known, such as "Aleut."
- "Latino" (which is both a noun and an adjective), and the feminine "Latina" refer to people of Latin American descent. "Hispanic" is a commonly used synonym, and while not insulting, is falling into less favor. These terms refer essentially to people whose ancestry is traced to people both from the old world (Europe and/or Africa) and Latin America. It includes dissimilar people such as blonde-haired Argentinians of partial German descent, Afro-Brazilians who physically resemble inhabitants of West Africa, and American natives who may speak only English. People of pure indigenous Latin American ancestry, and people of strictly European (Spanish and/or Portuguese) descent may or may not identify as Latino.
- Many people's racial identity is completely separate and distinct from Latino identity. For example, a person may identify as both white and Latino, or both black and Latino, etc. Others identify racially as Latino. Anyone's self-identity is recognized by etiquette, regardless of various government agencies' classifications.
- "Latin" should not be used as an anglicized form of "Latino" as it refers to people of Southern European lands which once used the Latin language. "Spanish" or "Spanish speakers" should not be used to refer to Latinos, as the terms are not mutually inclusive. "Chicano" is a somewhat unwelcome and archaic term for "Mexican."
- As Puerto Rico is a territory of the USA, the phrase "Puerto Rican immigrant" is inappropriate, as it is equivalent to saying, "Californian immigrant."
Allowing the flag to touch the ground or, worse still, stepping on it, is contrary to United States Flag Code
. Wearing the flag, even as intimate apparel, though common, is also prohibited by the flag code. Worn flags should be respectully disposed of.
- Although "Yankee" is synonymous with "American" in many foreign countries, within the USA this term is not used self-referentially and has specific meanings depending upon the context, and may be perceived as offensive. Foreigners should avoid addressing United States citizens as such, and should use the term "American."
- In the Southern United States, "Yankee" refers to inhabitants of the northern United States, primarily New England, the mid-west, and the middle-Atlantic states. It generally refers to perceived differences in culture, and usually has a less than positive connotation. "Let's show our new Yankee in-laws some Southern hospitality" is likely to offend the mother-in-law. A Southerner can quite offensively be referred to as a "Yankee." In polite conversation, it is best for all involved to avoid using the term to refer to individuals from any part of the U.S.